Hijab in Medicine – World Hijab Day 2021

This is a short reflection on World Hijab Day (February 1st). Because my hijab is an outward symbol of faith, this is hardly the last time I will be reflecting on this, inshaAllah, but I want to add a perspective as a medical learner and someone who’s relationship with the politics around this act of worship has changed.

My desire to engage in this conversation is limited to be honest. I have grown up in a Western country and have had these conversations with non-Muslims countlessly. Hijab is not new or exotic to me. It’s just my life. But every time it is brought up, it renders me as a symbol for whatever politics with which the other person aligns. I prefer in-community conversations where I am not an emissary for anything – I am just a believer struggling to do her best. So as I share the following reflection, know that I am well aware of the noise and excitement surrounding this topic and am tired of it all.

Here are 3 points that I want do want to mention as a medical learner for people who want to understand my view on my hijab. I speak only for me and my understandings have changed so much throughout my life that I do not hold any opinion of mine as inviolable truth.

Saying that “hijab is a choice” is reductive.

It is not one among many similar dressing options – rather it is a fulfillment of God’s command which is a path esteemed above others. In the general sense, this is an individual belief – I choose to fulfill this command and therefore I have made an individual choice. Likewise, I equally respect and protect people who choose otherwise – knowing the complexity and diversity of human expression and circumstance. But the decision to wear it every morning is made only by elevating the command of God above my own wishes. The choice narrative lost its nuance somewhere along the line. Now it appeases an individualistic, Capitalistic understanding of self with which our society is comfortable. Perhaps we want to separate ourselves from those upon which hijab is culturally or politically forced – a plight constantly beamed onto our airwaves, into our foreign policy and into our NGO missions. In any case, it is harder to say I am wearing hijab to obey God than it is is to say I am exercising a freedom to dress modestly.

The representation I contribute is not liberation.

I have fallen into this trap in the past – assuming my mere presence as a hijab wearing woman in a certain space would be enough to facilitate equity for future people. I wanted so badly for my mere presence to be a source of good – but when the system and culture itself is exclusionary and oppressive, one Brown, veiled face does not change anything. This applies to medicine most because it is an institution that society both values and scrutinizes. I am not naive to neglect the fact that my anomalous appearance means I inherently represent other Muslims. But if anything, I want to represent the principles of Islam – and this can only be done through my character and ethics. So do not render my hijab benign – understand it for what it is – but neither politicize it. I am not here to fit a narrative outside of my own creation or benefit.

Believe in me and support me

For medical institutions: One of the wisdoms of hijab is that it identifies me as Muslim and I love that you can infer my values and submission to God through my appearance. What I do not want however, is for you to assume what my values and dress means for my ability to serve patients. I know I have to advocate for myself. I know I have to send more emails and talk to more people to get accommodated. But if people can practice medicine around the world in full hijab, what makes the knowledge and skills of medicine so unique here that my hijab stops me from serving my patients fully?

I end this reflection with one final statement: I am not in medicine in spite of my hijab nor because of it. I am neither a model-minority nor a quota recipient. I am in medicine because of the faith I embody in my my work ethic, my values, and – concurrently – in my dress.

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